I have a deep relationship with Serena Williams. The fact that this relationship exists entirely in my head is neither here nor there. One time, I watched a video of her working out right before I went to a high intensity interval training session. Watching myself in the mirror the whole class, I couldn't help but feel like my workout looked just like her workout. I ended up so sore I couldn't parallel park for a week.
With that context, it should come as no surprise that I'm a little obsessed with the Sports Illustrated cover that recently came out commemorating Serena's selection as the 2015 Sportsperson of the Year. Beyond the fact that it's gorgeous and that I have a full-time seat on Team Serena, there's something I love about her declaration of victory after a playing season that, by all accounts, was mixed. So much success, mashed up with injury, media tomfoolery and that painful loss.
Life is always, only that: wins and losses, mixed together. Interpretation, the way we choose to reverse engineer our personal stories, is everything. I recently produced a retreat attended by successful professional women, all of whom hold enviable job titles. When I asked them to tell me their career stories, many of them chose to retell their timelines in a way that disproportionately emphasized their losses, spinning their stories through the lens of personal failures, emotional wounds, bad breaks and times they made bad decisions.
Not only did my retreat friends recall negative events much more intensely, they also tended to take "bad" things and losses very personally. Seeing so much of this style of interpretation come up at the retreat inspired me to share The Four Agreements - four beliefs author Don Miguel Ruiz suggests we adopt to release an enormous amount of suffering and live happier, bolder, more grounded lives.
While all four agreements are worthy of attention, the Second Agreement is a big one: Don't take anything personally.
Whatever happens around you, don't take it personally... Nothing other people do is because of you. It is because of themselves. All people live in their own dream, in their own mind; they are in a completely different world from the one we live in. When we take something personally, we make the assumption that they know what is in our world, and we try to impose our world on their world.
This brings us back to Ms. Williams. You can argue about whether she is the Greatest Athlete of All Time, if you'd like, but one thing you can't dispute is that she is a stellar model for what happens to your life when you stop taking things personally.
Practicing not taking things personally is a challenge, but the upside of rewiring the way you see almost everything others do as being about them (vs. you) is enormous. Let's use Serena's recent life and interviews as Exhibit A. Here are just a few of the changes you can expect to see in your life when you stop taking things personally:
1.You become the ruler of your own emotions and get clear direction for your life. See, when you take the things other people say personally, you hand over control of the steering wheel of your emotions and your life to another person: another person who is human, flawed, and dealing with their own emotional wounds and flawed belief systems.
When she announced her return to the Indian Wells tournament, after 15 years of boycotting the event where she and her sister were the victim of racial insults as teens, she wrote in an essay in Time: "There are some who say I should never go back. There are others who say I should've returned years ago. I'm just following my heart on this one."
And when journalists asked her about the pressure to win Slam after Slam, she replied with a clear, internal compass, respectfully declining to take that pressure on as her own. The New Yorker quoted her before the Open as saying, "That's the beauty of my career. I don't need to do anything at all. Everything I do from this day forward is a bonus. Actually, from yesterday. It doesn't matter. Everything for me is just extra."
When you stop taking things personally, you become the sovereign ruler of your emotions and your actions - regardless of what others think or expect of you. If you can take it to expert level, you can be the boss of yourself and your life - regardless of external pres2. sures or circumstances.
2. You learn who you really are, and what you're really about. When you don't take other people's opinions, actions and words about you personally, you will slowly but surely learn what you really care about, what you want to do, what makes you happy and unhappy, and what your own vision for your life is. You give up the outdated storylines from your family, friends, coworkers, even your childhood that explain why you are a certain way or have never been able to overcome a certain thing, and those limitations disappear. You develop an independent moral compass and vision for your life, and your decisions become clearer, faster. You'll live more boldly, and make moves that work for you and your personal value system, with much less regret.
Serena is clear on why she does what she does:
She plays for the love of the game: "I'm fortunate to be at a point in my career where I have nothing to prove. I'm still as driven as ever, but the ride is a little easier. I play for the love of the game."
She plays for the next generation: '''I play for me,'' Serena told me, ''but I also play and represent something much greater than me. I embrace that. I love that. I want that.'''
She returned to Indian Wells driven by faith and forgiveness: "I was brought up to forgive people," Serena says, "and I felt that I wasn't doing what I was taught."
And she's equally clear on what she's not motivated by, even though everyone around her might expect her to be. ''You don't understand me,'' Serena responded to a New York Times reporter's inquiry about how badly she wanted the 22 Grand Slam milestone. ''I'm just about winning. It's not about getting 22 Grand Slams."
When you stop taking things personally, you get to write your own story. If someone else wants to tell a story about you, you either correct them or let them have their own story about you. But you don't internalize it or take it on - you become impervious to their story, their poison, their issues.
3. You connect MORE deeply with others, not less. When I shared the Second Agreement with my friends at the retreat, one woman raised her hand and asked a fair question: "What about the good things? When people say nice, loving things to me, if I don't take those things personally, won't it impair my relationships?"
I believe it's almost more important that you don't take the positive things people say and do to you personally than the critical things they send your way. Why? Because the positive things other people say still come from a place of their dreams, beliefs, goals and agreements. Allowing them to be in control of your emotions, even your positive emotions, is still putting your emotional state into someone else's hands.
When you practice understanding that nothing anyone else says or does is actually about you, you begin to have more compassion for the wounds that people who say or do unkind things toward you are experiencing. You become more able to connect with people from a place of mutual love, respect and a commitment to engaging in relationships that reflect the friend, lover, family member and professional you want to be in this life vs. coming from a place of quid pro quo, caretaking, obligation and name-calling. Relationships built on that foundation are deep, strong and healthy.
In talking about her relationship with one-time #1 rival and bff Serena Williams, Caroline Wozniacki told Vogue that following her broken engagement, "She wasn't pitying me, like a lot of people were. I mean, it's not like anyone died. I was in shock, but she was really helpful because she had been through it before. She didn't sugarcoat it, and she didn't look down on me. She was really there for me when I needed her the most, and that's why I think our friendship is so strong now."
Taking things personally is a massive limitation. It gradually erodes at your clarity and your boldness until you force your life into this little shape that no one else will find objectionable. Release the tendency to take things personally. Doing so is transformative, and will put you back on the throne of your emotions and your actions. Ask Queen Serena.